“I’m sorry, I just can’t get your pronouns right!” Yes, you can. You just won’t.

(ATTN: This is a rare post directed at cis people. Gee.)

It happens all the time.  Mostly with cis people, but with some trans people too.  Someone gets a pronoun wrong.  Sometimes it’s a binary pronoun (that is, he or she) and sometimes it’s a non-binary pronoun, like they, zie, or ey.  And guess what?  If you get a pronoun wrong, even if it was an honest mistake, it is your fault.  It is a big deal.  It is an example of cissexism.  It is an example of linguistic violence.

In fact, it is an example of your cissexism.  Because you’re cissexist.  The first step is admitting that you have a problem, and just like admitting that you’re an addict, it is hard to do.  And just like admitting that you’re an addict, it is brave.  And indispensable!  Or you’ll hit your rock bottom, and that trans person you keep mispronouning?  You will make them cry, or you trigger a panic attack for them, or the worst case scenario will happen, and you will lose them.  I hope you value them enough to want these things not to happen.

I don’t care if you knew them before they came out.  I don’t care if this is the first trans person you’ve ever encountered.  I don’t care how long you knew them before they came out.  I don’t care if you knew and loved them intimately as your son, daughter, boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband, niece, nephew, brother, sister, grandaughter, grandson, pageant queen, best man, bridesmaid, courtesan, madam, maestro, personal wizard, midwife, or cigarette girl.  That’s really important, but right now it isn’t relevant.

“But it’s not my fault!”  I hear you cry.  “I’m not cissexist!  I’m just adjusting!  I need time and practice!”

Well, you’re partly right.  You need time and practice to learn how not to be cissexist!

We all have cissexism to work through.  For trans people it’s internalized, but I think it’s easier for us to work through ours because cissexism hurts us.  But it’s designed to make cis people’s lives easier and better, so for cis people it’s harder to get over.  It’s just so much comfier to stay cissexist!  Of course, one of the central tenets of cissexism is that cissexism doesn’t exist, so it’s even comfier to stay cissexist and pretend you aren’t.

A lot of cissexism is unconscious.  So you can totally accept this trans person’s transition intellectually, politically, and every other way, but clearly, you still have some stuff to work on.   If you value this trans person, you need to make that work a priority.

The reason you aren’t able to get this trans person’s pronouns right is that you haven’t worked through your cissexism.  Maybe it’s that they don’t look like a cis man or a cis woman.  Maybe they don’t sound like one.  Maybe they don’t have conventional male or female interests.  Maybe it’s that they’re non-binary, and you don’t know how to negotiate having someone in your life who isn’t a man or a woman at all.

I once had a long conversation with a highly educated cis man about pronouns.  I know him to be absolutely brilliant.  He was an official at a school.  He told me that I had to understand, that the cis people (everyone else) at my school couldn’t get my pronouns right because I wasn’t “masculine” enough for them to associate male pronouns with me. As I do now, I dressed like a cute gay boy.  As I do now, I gesticulated often and acknowledged the fact that I was capable of bending my wrists and hips.  I talked openly about my interests in dance, poetry, and cute boys.

He acknowledged that this was fucked as hell, albeit in nicer language, because he was at least gender-positive enough to believe that men shouldn’t have to like football and beer and women shouldn’t have to like pink dresses and fluffy bunnies.  But instead of attempting to educate these people–which he could have done, as he was in a position of extremely high authority–he asked me to accept their sexist, homophobic, and cissexist perspective on gender.  I was the one who needed to change, not them, although he openly acknowledged that they were wrong.  During this conversation, I was in tears, because I was having regular panic attacks during the school day.  They were happening because of persistent and unapologetic mispronouning.  (Keep in mind, I was a sixteen-year-old kid.  Sixteen-year-olds are not known for their emotional maturity, and we shouldn’t ask them to be as mature as or more mature than adults.)

Why am I telling you about this guy?  Because he’s one of the smartest people I know and he was completely unable to recognize and own his cissexism.  Or, in more common terms: He refused to take responsibility for his actions.

This shouldn’t happen to anyone.  (It especially shouldn’t happen to a kid, and it especially shouldn’t come from authority figures, and it should never be this pervasive a problem in a learning institution.  But that’s another post altogether!  And one I’ll someday make, I promise.)  In this example, it was happening throughout an entire institution, but it’s most commonly a problem in basic personal relationships.  Parent and child.  Friends.  Uncle and niece. Cousins. Romantic partners. Employees and bosses, or employees and clients.

When I came to college, an environment where cis people were actively questioning their privilege, this treatment decreased dramatically.  It was not perfect, but there was an understanding that pronoun fuck ups were a big deal and sprung from a larger system of oppression.  My panic attacks due to pronoun misuse stopped completely.  I felt safe.  My mental health took a dramatic turn for the better.

When I say that pronoun misuse is often unapologetic, I don’t mean that people don’t usually say, “I’m sorry.”  They do.  But you know what?  “I’m sorry” is meaningless unless it actually means, “I will work not to do that again.”  People said, “I’m sorry,” but they followed it up with, “I don’t mean to do it!” or “But I totally support you!”  And then they did it again the next day.  Or the next hour.  Or the next sentence.

Yes, you meant to do it.  And no, you don’t support me.  If you didn’t mean to do it, you would do the work necessary not to do it.  There are cis people who don’t do it.  If you supported me, you would do that work.

You need to take responsibility for your actions.  More concisely: own your shit.  This is a basic tenet of life.  This came up a lot in the preschool I used to teach in.  Why haven’t you learned it yet?

If a cis person mispronouns me and tries to explain why it’s not their fault, I want to cry, and then I laugh in their face.  As gently as I can, I tell them it is their fault and that it is not okay.  I am upset with them, and I have the right to be.  I am sometimes triggered by these encounters because of how unapologetically cissexist they are.

If a cis person mispronouns me, apologizes, knows it’s a big deal, and owns the fact that they fucked up and have cissexism to work through, I smile.  I tell them that yeah, it’s a big deal, but it is not the end of the world, and we can still be friends.  I mean it.  I am rarely triggered by these encounters.

This matter of mispronouning brings up all kinds of questions about intentionality.  I don’t want to unpack that concept here, because it is a huge one–and, not coincidentally, one I learned about from the teacher I told you about earlier in this post.  What are your “intentions” and are they relevant here?  If your true intention was to support my gender identity in every way you could, you would do the work necessary for you to use the correct pronouns.  I know because I’ve had to do work to use correct pronouns for people in my life!

That’s right, I have mispronouned people.  I will again. I’m still adjusting to using non-binary pronouns like zie and ey, but I’ll get there.  (It’s one of my New Year’s resolutions.)  I mispronouned someone on Twitter yesterday–although I think I deleted the tweet fast enough that no one saw.

The work we need to do to get pronouns right is different for everyone.  For some of us it’s reading.  For some of us it’s a couple long talks with a trans-positive person who’s comfortable educating us.  (The “comfortable educating us” part is extremely important.)  For some of us it is time–but it is unacceptable for it to be too much time.

It really is like addiction–if you get sober after ten years, that’s great.  Congratulations!  But after five years would have been better.  And one year would have been better still.  Personally, if someone misgenders me consistent, I cut off all contact after three months in which the behavior persists.  This is a matter of my mental health, and I cannot afford to jeopardize that for you.  Again, this is just what I do, and different things may work for others, but this works for me.

Do whatever work you need to do to. It may take a while to figure how what work that is, but hey.  It’s important.

Recognize that you need to start this work now.  Today.  Immediately.  Recognize that every day you go without doing this work, you are hurting the trans person in your life.  Now do it.

Take responsibility.  Behave like a grown-up.  This is a way to be kind and compassionate.  This is a way to keep a person from being in pain.  This is a way to be one of the good guys.  Do it.

Once you do, things will be better.  You can never undo what you’ve done, but you can fix a lot of the damage you’ve created.  For example, the guy I talked about earlier in in this blog is now a friend of mine.  He did the work.  Now, it isn’t perfect, because nothing is ever perfect, but it is totally ok.  It will be for you if you do your work.

38 Responses to ““I’m sorry, I just can’t get your pronouns right!” Yes, you can. You just won’t.”

  1. 1 EC January 12, 2012 at 2:24 am

    In earnest (and I understand if you won’t post this comment as per your policy on oppressive language), how do you recommend figuring out what pronoun you are to use for a given person (one that you have just met, for example)? As I understand it, you should never assume which pronouns you are to use based on someone’s appearance. That in itself seems cissexist to me, but I admit I know very little on this subject. In queer environments/spaces, it seems appropriate to just ask “preferred pronoun?”, but in other environments I can see it being a touchy question for some trans folk, perhaps unintentionally implicitly outing them. It is completely unacceptable and completely my fault if I get a person’s pronoun wrong after knowing which the person prefers, I just feel I don’t know how to go about getting over that initial hurdle of figuring it out.

    People (just in my daily encounters, sales clerks, cashiers, etc., not those who know me personally) mispronoun me all the time, and I sometimes have trouble blaming them. Should we always be asking “preferred pronoun?” And is the fact that we do not a product of a cissexist society?I think yes, and that always asking is ideal, but I have trouble figuring out logistically and pragmatically how this would work in a still-cissexist world.

    Sorry if this sounds too advice column-y…Thanks for any input you or anyone reading this blog may have.

    • 2 Stephen January 12, 2012 at 2:26 am

      Oh, this is a totally great question and I’m glad you asked!

      In my experience, the best thing to do is wait for a cue from someone else who seems to know the person well. On the other hand, a person like that might not be around, or they themselves might be mispronouning! If the person you’re pronouning seems uncomfortable or you’re really not sure, wait for a private moment, then take the person aside and ask, “Hey, I was just wondering–what’s your preferred pronoun? You don’t have to answer, but I’d like to make you feel comfortable.” I do this with almost everyone–it’s surprisingly easy, you can basically ask this question along with “Where do you work?” and “Do you have siblings?” and other getting to know you small talk like that.

      • 3 EC January 12, 2012 at 2:37 am

        To me, asking sometimes seemed like it might be offensive and overly personal, but I guess if we are to really get rid of the system of associating rigid presentations of gender with rigid gender pronouns, it is a reality.

        Taking cues seems ideal if they are indeed the right cues. Actually, being Finnish and having gender neutral pronouns all around seems to be the best scenario. Thanks for your advice.

  2. 4 Ginevra January 12, 2012 at 2:25 am

    Have you ever thought about how a group of men and women are referred to as “guys”, as in “Hi guys, you ready to order?”.
    Call me oversensitive, but that bugs me…
    Can you imagine a waiter greeting a table, “Hi gals, have you decided on dessert?”

    • 5 Stephen January 12, 2012 at 2:27 am

      If I ever wait tables again–it’s possible I will–I plan to approach co-ed tables with “Hey gals!”

      • 6 Ginevra January 12, 2012 at 2:54 am

        I am amazed by the time you take to clarify your thoughts. Unbelivable patience! You must type at 100 wpm!
        You make a lot of great points. I am concerned, however, that you will get frustrated by people who are occasionally clumsy with their use of pronouns. Please don’t surround yourself only with people who fully understand your choices. For example, I read your blogs precisely for that reason – I do not fully understand. Also, I hope you exempt you immediate family from this group – my own mother doesn’t even get my name right half the time she calls me my sister’s name.

  3. 7 Matt January 12, 2012 at 2:26 am

    Thanks for this, Stephen. As a teacher, I am constantly using different pronouns in my examples and making sure that I’m trying to educate my 4th graders in a non-binary way of thinking. We haven’t yet had experience in my class with non-binary pronouns, and I’m not brave enough to introduce it … I’m still trying to get them set on nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs … but I’ll see if I can work a lesson in on it. I think the kids would be interested in trying to write a story where they weren’t constrained to two traditional genders. In some ways, kids are open to these things, even though they’ve already been carefully taught that boys like blue and girls like pink.

    I also haven’t gotten used to “they” as a non-gender-specific singular pronoun. I still try to alternate between she and he. I’m trying to embrace it, but there’s some grammar flag that goes up whenever I try to use it. Or maybe it’s actually my cissexism!

    • 8 Jel January 12, 2012 at 6:54 pm

      Hi Matt – what an excellent teacher you sound…! It would be def interesting exercise to run with your class, you must do it…

      I know what you mean about grammar flags, I am starting to write with non-gender pronoun’s and am having the same issue. I don’t think this is cissexism, but its the feeling of the unfamiliar as we move out of the old into new ways of thinking, speaking, writing.

    • 9 mx. punk January 25, 2012 at 9:14 pm

      you sound like a rad teacher, matt!

      “I also haven’t gotten used to “they” as a non-gender-specific singular pronoun. I still try to alternate between she and he.” personally, i love singular “they” because it’s already embedded in the language. people use singular “they” when referring to someone of unknown gender. as such, most people who don’t misgender me choose to use singular “they” because they’re already somewhat used to it. i’d also like to point out that alternating between “he” and “she” is still binarist, my friend.

      that said, i wish you’d taught at my high school; sounds like you’re making a real effort to be inclusive. seriously, keep being an awesome teacher. the world needs more of you!

      • 10 Noah Adams September 9, 2012 at 12:48 am

        See and this is where it’s confusing for me. I come from a generation (I’m only 30 and I can’t believe I just said that) that learned that “they” was ‘othering’. Accordingly, I have difficulty using it for people as a pronoun. That said, that’s more my problem than the problem of the person identifying with this pronoun.

        I also wanted to add the following thought, which might be clever, cute, or annoying, depending on your perspective.

        I’m a transguy, who came out to my dad about 8 years ago. He got my pronouns wrong for a long-time, to say nothing of my name. In fact, it didn’t even end all that long ago. Finally, I took a friend’s advice and after he mis-pronouned me the last time, I told him, in a conspiratorial manner, that if he kept doing that, people would start to think that he was senile. He got very silent and hasn’t mis-pronouned me since.

        Of course, this says nothing of the larger issues at play and I don’t intend it to explain away, or otherwise excuse, his or my own behavior. It is, however, an interesting lesson in the amount of control we really do have over our words, particularly when our concept of what it says about us is challenged.

  4. 11 Kristen January 12, 2012 at 3:12 am

    I’m one of the ones who still has confusion over pronouns. It pains me to think I would ever hurt someone because of my own ignorance. I am working on learning and hope you will be patient with those of us who don’t know anyone who is openly trans and therefore don’t always know the right thing to say or do. My heart breaks for anyone who feels unsafe to be who they are and I am thankful for people like you who help educate those of us who are still in the dark trying to become educated. I am trying to become educated. Truly I am.

  5. 12 montyollie January 12, 2012 at 5:16 am

    This reminds me a little bit of the discomfort I feel when my female friends marry and take on their male partner’s last name, then name the baby and give the baby the male partner’s last name and expect me to be on board with all of this. It’s very hard for me. It offends every feminist bone in my body. I *hate* calling these women by their new names, even though they’ve expressly told me it’s what they want to be called. I feel like I’m participating in the patriarchy by following their wishes.

    Ever since I came out as genderqueer a couple of years ago, I have been SOOOO much more cognizant of pronouns and I work really hard to use the preferred pronoun but it’s SO. DAMNED. HARD. I kind of agree with that educated friend of yours… I gravitate towards using the pronoun that feels right to me, regardless of the wishes of the person. Which is hugely disrespectful, I’m aware of that. Like calling your female friends by their maiden names.

    Maybe it’s easier for me being GQ as I don’t care what pronoun people use with me. I’ve been ma’amed and I’ve been sir’d and I’m okay with both. I look at it as their issue not mine. But I do get what you are saying.

  6. 13 ME January 12, 2012 at 7:48 am

    Ok, this is going to sound dumb – maybe I haven’t been listening to conversations well (I’ll start paying more attention) – but when does a pronoun come up when someone is talking to another person?

    I understand people saying “guys” or “gals” to a group – but when talking one to one – how in the world do the pronouns he and she come up? Wouldn’t that be talking to the person in the third person like they weren’t there?

    I have also read the trans 101 link and the glossary that you have – and I’d like to know – where do people, like me fit in? I am a genetic female – didn’t feel out of place in the roles assigned to girls in my community and family as I grew up – but didn’t fit in or want to fit in to what society offered later on – (by the way, met some girls from Texas when I was about 11 – totally different from the girls in my neighborhood – like the word girl didn’t mean the same thing!)

    And I know a lot of women like this – well at least a dozen or more. We’re people – and treat others as people – but according to trans 101 we get labelled the same way as some person who was born and raised in a community of extreme gender differentiation who would be like some archetypal fifties woman – soft spoken; demure; thinks a man is the boss – things like that.

    So the term seems to be rather constrictive to me – lumping all people who aren’t transgendered together – and that makes it pretty meaningless as well as not allowing for people to be people. Or is there a term that fits that I missed?


    • 14 Ginevra January 12, 2012 at 6:39 pm

      I grew up with the same freedom – as girls we were encouraged to pursue our interests with little gender stereotyping -with the subtext of “don’t become a “mere” housewife – not OK

      Back to the linguistics of guy / gal
      … Other examples “hey dude” or “man” has become prevalent with “hipsters”….which
      is ironic given the focus on avoiding pronouns such as “he” when referring to an individual.
      This is more about language and I really don’t think most people care.

      • 15 GS January 31, 2012 at 4:41 pm

        Personally, I see/hear the “dude” and “man” thing and it bugs me. In my college, the “man” thing seems to have semi-transcended the “hipster” community you’re talking about and become a facet of everyday speech for many. As a pre-everything transwoman, I internally twitch whenever it’s applied to me. That being said, I’ve only ever seen it applied to “male” people. To me, it extends the fact that people see me as male, especially if it comes from one of the people I’ve told about my true gender identity.

        You say it’s “more about language”, but it could also be argued that *everything* that is part of “natural” speech that’s gendered is “more about language”. Our society speaks a certain way because our society, on the whole, completely conforms to a gender binary. Maybe concepts are introduced to the language, like the “man” thing, that aren’t originally based in trying to reinforce the gender binary/stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t.

        • 16 Stephen January 31, 2012 at 5:07 pm

          Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s the way I talk, even IRL, and that’s a consequence of the fucked up world I’m living in, and it’s my responsibility to fix it. I will probably fix this post at some point today if I have time to edit, but I’m really really busy! I will, however, promise to be mindful of this language in the future, and not to use it.

          ETA: Ok I think I took out the instances of it but I am super tired and kind of not the smartest I’ve ever been at the moment! Please do point it out if I missed some.

          • 17 Noah Adams September 9, 2012 at 1:00 am

            I realize that I’m late to the party here, but I think what this discussion is slipping into is the debate between linguists as to whether language determines thought, or thought determines language.

            I believe it was Noam Chomsky (and I might be wrong here, since it’s been awhile) who argued for the former. In this paradigm, the use of exclusively binary pronouns creates a binary society, which can only express it’s gender in binary terms. Therefore, the use of non-binary pronouns, forces society to encompass a non-binary frame of gender and leads to more descriptive non-binary gender terminology and even expressions.

            This is, at best, a vast simplification, but it’s also interesting to ponder whether forcing language to evolve can result in societal evolution.

    • 18 j. t. r. (@jumpedtherabbit) January 13, 2012 at 1:37 am

      I’m going to hit your first point. You say people don’t really USE pronouns around their human antecedents.

      Three things here:
      One, given that you are a non-trans person, and you have not expressed any experience with dysphoria w/r/t pronouning, you have the privilege of not noticing every pronoun that happens in your vicinity. Most trans* folk I’ve had the privilege of speaking to (as well as in my own experience) are hyper-aware of pronoun usage. I personally feel most pronouns LITERALLY viscerally because they give me such anxiety. They’re a pervasive part of speech, believe me, I know. Recognize that your privilege means you have the luxury of pronouns just flying under your radar unnoticed. In my experience they happen quite frequently in 3 or more person conversations, especially where there is lively debate, where “I think she’s saying that…” might be explained to another person. It happens. It happens a lot.
      Two, there are many, many more ways and opportunities to non-consensually gender someone than pronouns. Again using an example from my own life, yesterday I needed to use the bathroom at a place that requires you to ask for a key to get into it. So, okay, I go to ask. The guy behind the counter picks up a key, looks at me, and says, “Uh, I think we’re out.” So the situation was that ONE of the sets of M/F bathroom keys was out. I didn’t know which one, I didn’t know which one he thought he should give me, and I had no idea what to do or say to actually be able to go into the bathroom. It’s also common to have someone solicit your opinion on something, where that opinion is contingent upon your assumed gender, or for someone else to share an experience for you to relate to, when that shared experience is based in gendered constructions. Etc.
      Three, the fact that people are more likely to use pronouns about people who are not there is reason enough to be very careful about how you use them. A person who is not present cannot advocate for themself, cannot correct whatever mis-pronouning might happen. You probably wouldn’t make wild speculations about a person who you likely don’t know very well (because if you did, their pronoun preference would probably be clear) when they aren’t around to object (unless you are rude, I guess) and I don’t think it’s really polite to wildly speculate about their gender and pronoun preference either.

      And that turned into an essay. But. I did answer your question!

  7. 20 Ruth January 12, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Great blog. I am a cis person, but my presentation is “nonconforming” (to what, I always wonder–it certainly conforms to what I want to look like as a woman) and I get mispronouned/misidentified all the time (my fellow butch dyke friends and I call it getting “sirred”). The difference, of course, is that it’s always by strangers. No one who actually knows me calls me by the wrong pronoun. How freaking obnoxious and passive aggressive and hateful. It is, of course, often an act of aggression when strangers do it too, particularly when it’s followed up by an EXPLANATION of how something about my appearance “tricked” them into thinking I was a guy (oh, so it’s my fault you assumed I was male?). To make it even more complicated, sometimes I don’t mind being mispronouned–if a gay guy mispronouns me, it’s entertaining and we both laugh about it.

    At any rate. Words have power. Deliberately or passive aggressively using the wrongly-gendered words when speaking to or about someone is an act of violence. Telling them it’s their “fault” is another act of violence. Grow up, people. Don’t do it.

    And, oh–it’s perfectly grammatically legitimate to use “they” as a singular pronoun. See this article by the fine folks at Oxford Dictionaries: http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/he-or-she-versus-they

  8. 21 Higgs Boson January 12, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Simple solution: use an inappropriate/unwanted set of pronouns when you refer to these people. If they are mature adults, it will not make them cry, trigger panic attacks or make them feel violated, but they might gain a little insight, nevertheless.

  9. 22 C January 13, 2012 at 6:18 am

    I have a rather roundabout pronoun question: how should one approach people who mispronoun people who are not present? Specifically, one of my closest friends in undergrad used to work for the person I work for now. Said boss often refers to my friend/his former employee with female pronouns/feminine nickname and I’m not quite sure how to deal with that. Saying “sorry, but person x goes by pronoun y” feels too much like outing someone without their permission to me, and while I’ve tried just referring to said friend with their chosen name and pronouns, I feel like that’s sort of a passive-aggressive way of tackling the situation.
    I know not every trans*/non binary identified person would want this situation handled in the same way, I was just hoping for an objective opinion on where I should start – I feel like I’m running into this problem more often as of late, and I want to do everything I can to create safe spaces for my friends.
    Anyway sorry for turning this into an advice column/thanks for devoting your time to this truly lovely blog.

    • 23 carl January 24, 2012 at 2:19 am

      Hi, I hope it’s alright for me to jump in with an opinion on your question, C. I have some thoughts.

      1. Ask the person who is being mispronouned/misgendered behind their back how you would like them to respond to those situations. It is likely that they will want you to respond differently with different people or in different settings. For example, I prefer my friends to correct other friends or peers of mine, especially if they already know my preferred pronouns. I don’t however feel comfortable with anyone outing me to my family and would ask them to simply avoid pronouns and just use my name when talking to certain members of my family.

      2. Be kind and intentional about the way you ask. Don’t say something like, “Oh my god, so and so kept calling you this and using these pronouns for you and they are so annoying. Should I tell them to stop?” A lot of people don’t need to hear specific details about other people treating them disrespectfully. Try something more along the lines of, “You have told me that you prefer ___ pronouns. If that is still the case, how would you like me to respond if I hear other people using the wrong pronouns to refer to you?”

      Another thing you can do if you are a cis person is to keep educating yourself, and if you are able, help educate other people so that the burden of helping people work through their cissexism isn’t resting as heavily on trans* people.

  10. 24 Kay January 13, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Thanks so much for this. I’m trying to get a cis guy to recognise the need to use appropriate pronouns when talking about his (trans) son. As you might expect with the blocking on gender recognition the two aren’t communicating as present. Call me old fashioned but I think a boy growing up benefits if he and his father can be on speaking terms so I’m trying to help the father.

    Pronoun recognition is also important to my local activist group, The Queer Avengers (of Wellington, New Zealand) who start group meetings with a name and preferred pronoun round. One said zie will answer to hir name or to “Oi”. We thought that was a cute addition to the gender nonspecific pronoun set 🙂

  11. 25 Sig January 13, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    I’m sorry you had to go through all this in school (for what’s it worth) and your mentor let you down in this regard. I hate how ALWAYS in conflict situations a figure holding power advises conforming even if you’re the victim. I cannot imagine someone non-binary or trans* going to my high school where PROFESSORS called two of my classmates with long hair “girls”. One of them gave in and cut his hair.

    Everyone always says, that you have to be patient while others adjust and it’s you who has to constantly educate them (accordingly to their comprehension). I agree with you it’s the other’s responsibility to know better and accommodate. I kind off try not to blow up as while I live in UK, I’m Polish and this language is insanely gendered. Every sentence component has gender thus you have to change your whole manner of speech. I have no idea how would you even pull off ungendered speech, you’d have to resort to ‘it’ and even if there are neutral pronouns (never researched it) the whole structure would be cocked up.

    I also have problem with neutral pronouns in English, everyone has different preferences. Most people specify those and if I don’t know this person I use ‘they’. I know a few people using ‘they’. A friend of mine uses ‘zie’ when talking about someone she doesn’t know, it’s probably better to change to it.

  12. 26 Kyle January 18, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    thank you for this post. I’ve been guilty of just about every mistake, and have been hit with just about all the transgressions listed in the post and the comments. I really appreciate reading new examples of misgendering situations and getting new perspectives on lessons learned. I’m really grateful to find new ways privilege plays into all of this, because I usually find that I’ve played that privilege card myself, usually without any awareness of my transgression.

    Great post and excellent comments/discussion accompanying it.

    Kyle who is sometimes a she, and sometimes a he, and almost always a they

  13. 27 Anonymous Cis Person January 19, 2012 at 12:04 am

    (Trigger Warning: Cis privilege denial.)

    What the hell is a cis? I doubt many people have heard that terminology. Was the intended audience a specific one, one that would know that term, and precisely what you are talking about? I am annoyed by this post because the writer goes on and on and on about how us asshole, lazy “cis” people do not respect and honor you and then does not inform us on how to do so! Yeah, I heard, we gotta get your pronouns right, but why don’t you give us some help? Like, what are you talking about? What ARE the appropriate pronouns? In English, there are limitations, are there not? I don’t know what pronouns to use for someone who identifies as an in-between gender and such. And unless someone tells me how said individual would like to be addressed or referred to, how the hell am I supposed to know how to be sensitive? You can’t put it all in us. What, are we all supposed to take college courses to do our work? I guess it would be good to introduce the language in schools, so people are aware and have some tools up front, but even then, someone could get the “wrong” pronouns shot at ’em if the “cis” people do not know how said person identifies. Are we supposed to go up and ask? A lot of people would feel uncomfortable with that, I mean, if that person didn’t know you, or whoever, well. Anyway, I am annoyed with the assumptions made in this article, and that you assume we know how to go about change. Yeah, there might be a lot of people out there who don’t care, or are not ready to care, but how much work are we supposed to do with this; can you help us out?

    • 28 Stephen January 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm

      Well, firstly, let me google that for you.

      It takes literally two seconds of your time to find out what “cis” means in this context. I encourage you to make the tiny amount of effort required of you.

      I don’t assume you know anything–ha, and clearly, I’m right in that. I do, however, assume that you understand that it’s your obligation to learn, not my obligation to teach you. After all, as Audre Lorde wrote, “it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressors.”

    • 29 montyollie January 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm

      I’ve only been reading Stephen’s blog for a short while, but I do read a lot of other trans blogs and watch a lot of trans/genderqueer YouTube channels. Stephen is very much still an ‘angry transguy’ and he’s very young, so take what he says with a grain of salt. I’m almost 40 and just now easing up on the anger I felt most of my life, mostly directed in every-which-way. Also, Stephen’s blog really does at times come off as one of those academic ‘snob’ blogs where if don’t speak the same language as him, you are made to feel stupid. Don’t let that scare you off, either. I am a weekly regular on a YouTube channel called “GenderQueerChat” and I try very very very hard to bring the whole thing down to street level. I don’t have a university education and neither do any of my friends. A lot of my childhood friends are SAHMs, married with kids… they have no idea what ‘gender binary’ is, never mind ‘cis’. I didn’t know what ‘cis’ was either, until I encountered it, then looked it up. I also had no idea how to go about saying the right thing when I didn’t know what the right thing was. It’s like not knowing which fork is which at a fancy dinner, because you never took etiquette lessons. It doesn’t make you a bad person, you just have to learn if you want to know.

      Your best bet, is if you don’t know, ask. You can ask anyone “what pronoun do you prefer?” It’s a strange question, to be sure, but for the people for whom it really matters, they will be really glad you asked. For the people who have no idea what you are talking about, they will say “HUH” and you can say sorry or change the subject or say “someone named Jo online said that I should ask that question” or whatever. And like Stephen said, Google is your friend. Google and wikipedia are my lifeblood.

      I don’t think cis people are lazy. I think the vast majority don’t know, and they will never know unless someone tells them. I’d rather it be me that explains it, kindly, using non-academic terms and saying stuff like “Well I don’t know how to change the oil in my car, that doesn’t make me stupid” just like not knowing some academic terms doesn’t make you stupid.

  14. 30 Kina January 22, 2012 at 9:03 am

    Being that you devoted so much time and effort to taking cispeople to task for incorrect pronoun usage, don’t you think that referring to us collectively as “dude” was counterproductive to your argument? Does it help anyone when you use the social transgression that you seek to eliminate when chastising the offender? Not all cispeople are dudes, and we aren’t all willfully ignorant, hateful, and oppressive.

    I understand now -from your reply to that horrible post above- that while you are angry about our lack of knowledge, you don’t want your blog to be a source of information/education for cispeople. I have enjoyed reading your work and learning of your thoughts and concerns. It has been a springboard for me to go on and dig deeper, but I certainly want to respect your wishes.

    • 31 Stephen January 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Sometimes I have posts that are specifically for cis people; most of the time I don’t. See how it says at the top of this post that this one is directed towards cis people? If you’re cis and you’d like to read my blog, you are absolutely welcome, but you need to come into this space knowing that unlike most of the world, you are not the target audience here.

      Fair enough, not all cis people are dudes or want to have the word dude used for them. But I absolutely reserve the right to express my anger towards cis people as a group!

      • 32 Ginevra January 23, 2012 at 4:25 am

        I had to look up “CIS” – and what I found most interesting was that the term is intended to identify behavior in a way in such a way that it is not the de facto “norm”. It’s almost like when one day I asked by mistake fir un-decaffeinated coffee, because I usually ask for decaffeinated.
        1. I did not realize this blog was intended for a “target group”.
        2. I used to go to a hair salon where I was not sure if the person’s gender and assumed they were in transition, but certainly never wanted to ask for a clarification. I would have felt rude.
        Most people don’t want to make a mistake about someone’s gender…you are such a cute baby, what’s your name….
        3. If “CIS anon” was referring to my comment that “most people don’t care”, I was referring to most coed groups don’t care that “you guys” has become the standard rather than ” you gals” , which I think actually says a lot about male dominance.

  15. 33 Alex January 26, 2012 at 4:00 am

    I love this post. I’ve been out to all my family as trans for just over a year now, and at work since October last year. Guess which area I feel more comfortable and myself in? I’ll give you a hint…it’s not around my family.

    My workplace, and my boss, have been awesome. I could count the name/pronoun mistakes on one hand. Seriously. They’ve been that great!

    My family ‘are fully supportive’ and ‘love me unconditionally, no matter what’ bla bla bla, but can’t get my name or pronoun right about 90% of the time. And no one understands why that makes me so damn angry! Even my (cis) girlfriend is telling me to give them time.

    When my girlfriend’s family is better at getting my name and pronoun right than my own family, that’s a cause for concern, right?

  16. 35 Jay The Strange February 25, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you for making this point so well. My dad is currently referring to me as “she… he… IT”, even when I’m in the room, so I’m in furious agreement with you right now! And he’s known that I’m trans for over 2 years. It’s incredibly depressing if you don’t get angry, and I’m not comfortable enough with myself as I am (pre-everything) to “just accept it” as I’m continually being told to do… Thanks again.

  17. 36 Lia April 17, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    I’m a cis woman (I think) with some graduate work in linguistics, and find your blog truly refreshing. Because of what you write, I’m very interested in what you think. I’d appreciate your take on this matter, which is: What do you think makes you identify as a man (or trans man)? Always since I was a child I viewed gender as a social construction, an imposed convention that I could not relate to for either gender. So gender identification/ assignment was something rather scary for me, particularly when I reached adolescence and understood gender expectations more in depth. I experience gender as a social convention, with a number of possibilities for presentation, but still a convention, a label, a restrictive classification similar to the ethnic categories imposed by the government (I didn’t grow up in the US and filling in those boxes has always felt awkward, forced). I know I’m a woman because I have female genitalia but I have never been able to fully embrace gender identity (any). It certainly is not a problem for me to say that I’m a woman–I have the equipment for it, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s all I need for that classification. Just don’t have any expectations because of that. I feel like I am a human being, and beyond that, I’m just me. So when I see trans people being adamant about their gender identification being not what society has assigned to their sex but what society has assigned to the “opposite” sex, I am absolutely intrigued. It seems to imply that gender is not a social construction but an inborn trait clearly defined for the individual experiencing it. (For this discussion, I’d prefer to leave out individuals with inherent chromosomal or hormonal differences and focus instead on individuals who simply identify with a gender other than the one society assigns to their otherwise undisputed sex.) I see the problems that society can cause for people who are not read as either male or female but this seems to me like a problem that we should work together to solve by changing society’s gender expectations and view of gender as something specific, not by having to conform to society’s expectations for the gender not assigned to us. I just don’t get it, and I want to get it. You say you’re a “binary trans man,” that is, a man, a decidedly-not-a-woman person, in the man-woman construction. So what makes you that? And what makes you militant about that? Further, couldn’t you just be who you are, a trans man, without having to present as what society identifies as a man? Gender-wise, I would have to say today that I’m a woman because of the many years of socialization as such but mainly because I have not been socialized as the alternative, a man. But gender, like ethnicity, is something I do not feel strongly, except when politics force me to take a stand. So I ask you, what is gender for you? How do you experience your gender? How do you embrace your gender and make it be indisputably you? I apologize for my cluelessness and thank you very much for taking the time to educate me. As for the use of pronouns, well, I think a trans person needs to ask for the pronoun they want. If we are trying to tear down cultural assumptions about gender, why would a cis person think they can assume the pronoun a trans person identifies with?


  1. 1 USA – “I’m sorry, I just can’t get your pronouns right!” Yes, you can. You just won’t. » actup.org Trackback on April 4, 2012 at 3:15 pm
  2. 2 This Week’s Shout Outs | | ButchtasticButchtastic Trackback on October 10, 2012 at 10:23 pm

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